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Virginia Guards Acquitted of Assaulting Prisoner

Three former prison guards were acquitted March 27, 2002 on charges of beating a shackled prisoner at the Wallens Ridge State Prison, a Virginia supermax. Lt. Jeffrey Compton, Sgt. Mathew Hamilton and Michael Bliley were charged with felonious assault and fired after allegations they kicked and beat Thomas Plummer in his cell November 17, 2001. They were also charged with falsifying a report documenting the incident. Captain Isaac T. Hockett, a 21 year department veteran, was also fired but charges against him were later dropped.

The court originally had problems selecting a jury. Many potential jurors knew, some were even related to, the accused guards. Wallens Ridge and its sister supermax, Red Onion, employ around 800 people, nearly 10 percent of the Wise County workforce, with an annual payroll of $30 million.

The jury listened to 22 days of testimony in which three Wallens Ridge guards testified that they saw the accused guards beat and kick Plummer. However, it took less than an hour after the conclusion of closing arguments to return the not guilty verdict.

Perhaps the prevailing attitude in Wise County is best summed up in the words of Judy Hartstock, resident and sister of a Wallens Ridge guard: "It's a dangerous job, and sometimes these inmates do need to be subdued," she said. "These criminals deserve to be there. I'm not saying that they deserve to be beaten. But they deserve to be where they are." Hardstock's attitude reflects the anti-prisoner bias typical of an area where a large part of the population either works for, or benefits from, the local prison industry.

Judge Robert Stump showed allegiance to his prison workforce constituency as well. After the verdict, he quickly ordered the Virginia Department of Corrections to reinstate the guards "with full and complete restoration of all benefits back to the date they were first suspended, December 12, 2001."

Wallens Ridge is a cesspool of brutality as PLN has reported in the past. It has been criticized by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the ACLU for excessiveand in some cases lethaluse of force, including the use of stun guns and shotguns that fire rubber pellets. Moreover, the prison has been the subject of numerous lawsuits since opening in 1999, two of which were recently settled for $1.85 million.

According to Tom Deardorff, a former Wallens Ridge employee, abuse there is rampant. While he worked there, he says, he saw guards spit in prisoners' food, kick and beat them, and shoot them with rubber pellets. Prisoners were forced to run while wearing leg irons, and if they fell, the guards dragged them.

Deardorff says he complained to the warden in January 2000 about the widespread abuse. A spokesman for the Virginia DOC, Larry Traylor, says that Deardorff's complaints were investigated and turned over to the FBI. The FBI, in turn, has handed over their investigation of Wallens Ridge and Red Onion to the U.S. Justice Department.

Sources: The Roanoke Times and The Richmond Times Dispatch

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